It was on a crisp cool morning, that I began my journey from Chandigarh with my friend in his car. The journey takes us to through the famous Grand Trunk Road, the national highway to Delhi; a sense of historical awe always strikes me while driving on this road, which is a stretch of the direct descendent of the ancient route that connected the capital of Magadh, Pataliputra to the North Western Frontier Provinces and onward to ancient educational centre Taxila. I am but traversing a short 140 odd kilometre stretch of a road that originally connected the two distant regions of a civilisation, at either ends of which were great cities like Taxila and Nalanda similar in cultural and religious characteristics though separated by thousands of miles.
In medieval times, this route is more famous for the arterial road built and maintained by the administration of yet another scion of Bihar, Sher Shah Suri, who established his capital in Delhi, having routed the nascent Mughal empire to oblivions of an unceremonious exile for well over a decade.
I am driving the car, through moderate and dense fog patches alternating with each other, and the cities of Kurukshetra and Karnal pass me by without my having seen their boards. I am passing through the Holy Land for devout Hindus, an area in which is set is the great Epic of the Mahabharata, in which the Holy Bhagwat Gita is Revealed by Lord Krishna to the warrior prince Arjuna. This route also traverses the ancient Harappan sites and Buddhist sites which lie at a few kilometres from the highway on either side. We are heading towards one such Buddhist site, about 40 kilometres from another important medieval city of Karnal.
I had first known about the site of Assandh Stupa from Charles Allen’s recent book on Asoka. He links the antecedents of his queen Assandhmitta with the town of Assandh, to which we are headed. She was a Buddhist, and in his book there is a picture of the stupa from the highway, towering very high and mighty; it had aroused enough emotional pull for me to take a two hour flight from my home base into Chandigarh and thereafter a three hour car drive to the ancient site. Subsequent readings indicated that it is more established as a Stupa from Kushana times, and the official archaeologically verified description also places it in the latter. However, considering the probabilities that older structures on areas with several cultural phases one above the another, were often enlarged or refurbished it is possible that the connection goes back to Ashokan times.
It is a typical pleasant and quiet village in Haryana, where the dirty pangs of urban real estate development are yet to gain roots. There are open fields, and the small village is actually settled around the stupa. The village stands on an archaeological mound that may give enough opportunities for researchers for decades of excavation and documentation. Haryana has several Harappan age sites as well, and a mix of historical research and tradition place the Rig Veda in the lands of Punjab and Haryana as well. So how old does a site like this can be, is anyone’s guess, but the specific ruins that we are seeking to see, is ascribed to the Kushana age. Given my own personal affinity for the state and my comfort in communication in the locally used vernacular, this was a new connection I was establishing with the past.
The remains of the stupa are contained inside a huge enclosure, with a flimsy yet respected government installed lock. The lock is opened for us to allow us inside. It is a huge mound, containing several layers of brickwork inside, now in ruins and ensconced within the mud and vegetation that has taken over the structure. There seems to be at least three layers to the stupa top, and it stands on a very high platform of brickwork, some part of which is exposed for the curious visitor to walk underneath vegetation to see closely.
This yielded Painted Grey Ware, early historic pottery, Kushana coins, Yaudheya coins and medieval relics. It is easily more than 25 metres in height. I can imagine, if it were ever discovered a few hundred years ago, it could have been saved and rebuilt like Sanchi or Sarnath stupas. No great relics of gateways or iconographic embellishments are found on the site, and I am not aware of any authentic information of their existence of their vestiges in any museum as of now. It has an elongated dome area, and the spokes were of brickwork, while the core was filled of mud and brick bats as was the usual architectural style of stupas. I am not aware of any discovery of relics in the core either.
We stand in awe on the site, as if an invisible connection to a past dating back two millennia had bound us there.
I proceeded to see the rear of the Stupa site, and one has to climb a little protective wall, nudge an unlocked gate open to get into the rear and soak in a better view. The rear view shows the circular perambulatory walkway around the dome of the stupa better. It is not advisable to step on it for fear of disturbing the archaeological finds that may lie unearthed and may inadvertently be lost forever.
With my sincere regard for archaeological conservation, I refrain from climbing onto the stupa core or its dome. I satisfy myself with a few more photographs from different angles, and satisfied, clamber down the sloping path from the mound back to the car.
Several kind villagers were around to help us in case we needed any assistance, offered food and tea etc., and it was a kind of homecoming of sorts, considering my own upbringing was at a place just over a hundred kilometres from this site. Offering the regular salutary routine greeting of Ram, Ram, Tau (Tau in Hindi / Haryanavi means elder uncle), I move back to the car, and we park at a nearby dhaba for a wonderful meal of onion parathas with butter and fresh curd. No better way to sit and soak in the experience we had just been blessed with.
Acknowledgements: Manoj Khurana for the entire trip.